Standing in the sparse shade of a Cyprus tree in the Old City of Jerusalem, a group of American parents gathered closer to hear the story of how the tribes of Israel became the Jewish people on these same ancient streets 3,000 years ago.
Sara Silverman, a single mother from Louisville, Ky., had longed to visit Israel since she was a teenager harboring fantasies about kibbutz life. Looking around, she declared, “This is a dream.”
Silverman was one of 17 parents who won a free 10-day trip to Israel thanks to their children, alumni of Birthright Israel who submitted winning video applications to a Birthright contest called “Let My Parents Go.”
The group followed in the footsteps of their children’s tours, exploring the Galilee, standing at the Western Wall and climbing Masada.
The trip was organized in honor of Israel’s 60th anniversary and in response to a sentiment voiced by many enthusiastic Birthright Israel alumni: If only my parents could see Israel as I did.
Birthright offers free 10-day trips to diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26 who have never been on a peer trip to Israel.
“We are giving an opportunity to families and to communities to grow and dive into their own Judaism,” said Aaron Herman, a Birthright official.
For the Sheltons of Newark, Del., who work as professional clowns, a trip to Israel was out of their financial reach.
“Clowns make laughable salaries,” Cindy Shelton quipped.
But the Sheltons’ daughter Emily, 19, won them free tickets by putting together a video farce showing her parents so busy trying to squeeze in extra clowning gigs to earn enough money for an Israel trip that they miss Emily’s message about applying for a free trip.
“We talked about coming someday, perhaps after we paid off all our college debts, so this is a big treat,” said Chris Shelton, 50, a former clown in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus who converted to Judaism after years of involvement in a Reconstructionist synagogue.
Shelton said his experience at the Western Wall was intense. As a convert, he approached the Kotel with trepidation, fearing he would not feel a sense of belonging.
But, he said, “As I prayed against the wall I could hear no noise. I could not hear anyone around me. I was isolated in my thoughts.”
Many of the parents said they were excited that their children paved the way for their own first visits to Israel.
“Jonathan came back and said, ‘You have to go,’ and although my husband wanted to, I was too nervous security-wise,” said Ilene Kleinman of her son, who returned from a Birthright trip two years ago with newfound enthusiasm for his Jewish roots. “It’s a privilege as parents to have your kids show you the way.”
For Silverman, who worked overtime at her job at a nursing home to enable her daughter to visit Israel several times after her Birthright trip, visiting Israel herself seemed like an unattainable goal.
When she read an ad in her local Jewish newspaper about the Let My Parents Go contest, she told her daughter Nina, now a graduate student at Brandeis University.
“Being physically here gives a sense of what it feels like to be part of something, that this place was built for us — for me,” Silverman said. “I really feel a sense of being at home.”
In the bustling market of the Old City in a stall crammed with red and orange patchwork pillowcases and wall hangings, Phyllis Kaplan thanked her daughters, Eliza and Dara Silverman, for making their winning video.
“It’s a truly amazing experience, and I’m so thrilled they did it for us because I don’t know that I would have done it otherwise,” said Kaplan, 60, a psychologist from Lexington, Mass.
Eliza and Dara, a singer-songwriter and animator, respectively, put their talents together to produce “The Land of Milk and Hummus” to promote their parents’ candidacy.
“Never did we know the extent of what they gave us until the days we spent in the land of milk and hummus,” croons Eliza to a banjo’s twang in their application video. “We’d love them both to reconnect to Judaism … noshing pomellos, climbing a carob tree … being there for Shabbos would mean a lot.”
Kaplan’s husband, Elliott Silverman, a 59-year-old clinical social worker, said it was a revelation to see the normalcy of life in Israel.
“You really do have to be here to get a sense of it, to know it,” he said.